Coronavirus canceled my honeymoon and I had no travel insurance — here's how I got my money back

Illustration by Neha Dharkar

I'm supposed to be in Scotland right now. 

In another, Covid-free reality, my wife and I would be about midway through our honeymoon. After enjoying Eritrean food and West End theater in London, the booming restaurant scene in Edinburgh, and live music and Bucky in Glasgow, we were going to drive north to Islay and the Isle of Skye for several days of hiking, cycling, and whisky tasting, before capping off the trip with a short stay in Inverness.

When planning the trip a few months ago, I managed to save several hundred dollars by booking several nonrefundable hotel options and using miles to pay for our flights.

I never expected that a global pandemic would force me to beg six hotels for my money back. But luckily, I also never expected that the term "nonrefundable" would turn out to be largely meaningless: Save for some StubHub tickets and a flight voucher, we've gotten all of our money back.

Here are four things I've learned throughout the cancellation process that may be helpful for other would-be travelers.

1. We didn't have travel insurance, but it might not have helped us anyway

At no point during the booking process did I consider travel insurance. While I felt a momentary pang of regret about not buying a policy when it began to look likely that we'd need to cancel our honeymoon, that feeling dissipated very quickly.

Most travel insurance plans will run you between about 4% and 8% of the total vacation cost, according to Travel Insurance Review. That could amount to several hundred dollars, or thousands if you're older and deemed higher risk. While these basic policies do cover common concerns like severe weather or personal injury, they don't generally cover pandemics.

"Your travel insurance would not cover you for not being able to go to Italy due to coronavirus, whether or not it was because the government closed the borders, or whether you [had what] would be described as fear of coronavirus, which is a well-founded fear," says Diana Hechler, president of D. Tours Travel in Larchmont, New York. "Nonetheless, fear of something doesn't get you coverage."

I never expected that a global pandemic would force me to beg six hotels for my money back. But luckily, I also never expected that the term 'nonrefundable' would turn out to be largely meaningless.

So-called "cancel for any reason" insurance, which tends to run closer to 10% or 12% of the total trip cost, tends to be more forgiving, but it's still not foolproof. Generally, you have to buy that insurance within 14 or 21 days of making a deposit on anything, well before we had any sense that a pandemic might ruin our plans.

It's also unlikely that you'll get all your money back. Payouts of around 60% of the total vacation cost are much more common than 100% payouts, according to Hechler.

Hechler still recommends buying travel insurance when you can, since by its very nature it's a form of protection against the unexpected. She even buys it for her own travel after she sprained her ankle in Italy a few years ago. It's just important to know when you're comparing policies what it does and does not cover.

The author and his wife had a big party in October to celebrate their now-canceled vacation.
Cody & Allison Photography

2. Airline refunds are easier if you used miles

While flight refunds have been a source of frustration for thousands of travelers as airlines hemorrhage money and struggle to process cancellations, our flights were one of the easiest refunds of all. The one saving grace: We had paid with miles. Once I made the cancellation, Delta returned our miles immediately, and the airline deposited the taxes and fees into our account just as quickly.

British Airways, with which we booked the first leg of our return flight within the U.K., gave us a £240 voucher for the cost of the flight but not a cash refund. While that's frustrating, it's not atypical. Most airlines are either offering vouchers or waiving change fees for cancellations by passengers, and fewer are offering full cash refunds. Since miles are simply a form of credit, we had no trouble getting ours refunded.

If you have to cancel your flight, it's important to know what your airline's policy is and to understand that some have more favorable terms than others.

When you have a schedule change, you as a consumer can always tell the airline, 'No, this is not what I bought. I decline the schedule change and I'll take a refund.'
Diana Hechler
President, D. Tours Travel

If the airline cancels the flight, on the other hand, federal law requires U.S.-based airlines to give full refunds when they cancel — although many have tried to steer passengers towards accepting vouchers instead. That requirement can also apply if your flight gets rerouted. Hechler was able to get a client a full refund for a flight to Switzerland because Swiss Air Lines cancelled their nonstop flight and offered them a connection instead.

"When you have a schedule change, you as a consumer can always tell the airline, 'No, this is not what I bought. I decline the schedule change and I'll take a refund,'" she says.

3. Timing matters as you work with travel providers

New York State instituted its shelter in place order on March 22 and the U.K. began its lockdown on March 23. But it became apparent well before then that my trip could be in jeopardy.

When I first tried canceling our accommodations in mid-March, our hotels in London and Glasgow initially stopped short of refunding us the money. Instead they offered to put the money we had already paid towards a future stay.

"We understand if you are frustrated by this but as a small company this situation is out of our control and we have been flooded by cancellation following the recent events," read the reply to the initial cancellation request from Glasgow. "To ensure we can continue to trade during these hard times we need to follow our cancellation policy."

All of this is understandable. The global tourism industry has essentially stopped because of the pandemic, and no one really knows yet how it will recover. We happily accepted those terms, but both hotels eventually gave us our money back without us even asking, once the local lockdown was in place and would clearly affect our travel dates.

Quarantine whisky tasting on the day we were supposed to visit Islay.
Courtesy Ben Jay

Denise Norris, accounts manager at the Cuckoo N1 pub and hotel in London where we planned to stay, told me that they were able to refund our money when the third-party site we booked through changed their refund policy with the lockdown.

Airbnb, through which we booked our stay on the Isle of Skye, recently extended its cancellation policy to cover all stays through May 31, as long as they were booked before March 14. Our host there refunded our money immediately, as per Airbnb's policy, but hosts across the world have still experienced a great deal of confusion and financial loss.

4. Try to reschedule but stay flexible

We're hoping to rebook our trip in the next few months, but the pandemic will almost certainly have a greater say in our plans than we will. While it's dispiriting to not be abroad right now, we have a long and relaxing vacation to look forward to when this is all over, and all of it has already been planned and researched.

Even if we could travel and take two weeks off work right now, it would be a waste. Everything we wanted to see or do is closed for the foreseeable future. Just like New York on lockdown, London right now is a shell of itself, and it's not the place we wanted to visit. That London, that Scotland, and that New York, unfortunately, do not exist right now.

As potential carriers and residents of the pandemic's current epicenter, our presence in these places right now would be deeply irresponsible. This is especially important for rural areas like Islay and Skye, where residents have limited access to health care and have to travel great distances to go to the hospital.

Scottish government officials have repeatedly urged tourists to avoid remote areas, echoing pleas from elected officials and year-round residents of many American vacation communities.

As of right now, October seems likely, since a concert we planned to see in Glasgow has been rescheduled for October 11. Kind of funny, since we had originally decided against an October honeymoon in the hopes of catching Scotland during better weather. 

Even if we could reschedule without worrying about the pandemic, no option is perfect. And we're not too worried: We know we'll get there eventually. In the meantime, we have our health, each other, and most of our money back.

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